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Broncos Hall of Famer Elway proving to be winner off the field, too

| Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, 7:21 p.m.
Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway answers reporters' questions during Media Day for Super Bowl XLVIII on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway answers reporters' questions during Media Day for Super Bowl XLVIII on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

NEW YORK — He is an iconic quarterback and Super Bowl winner who is restoring to prominence the longtime AFC power Denver Broncos, who had stumbled and fumbled their way into hard times.

Peyton Manning, right?

No, it's John Elway, whose skills as a talent evaluator and executive are being credited for refreshing a franchise that had lost its way, finishing .500 or worse for five consecutive seasons. In doing so, Elway is offering a road map to rebuilding success that a team such as the Steelers could copy.

“Being a quarterback, you sort of are a talent evaluator, knowing players' strengthens and weaknesses,” former Broncos running back Terrell Davis said. “He's taken that into the front office. … John's not up there doing what he's doing to pound his chest and say, ‘See what I'm doing?' He knows when to back up and when to be aggressive. I see all of his skill sets that made him a great quarterback.”

How did the Broncos go from being 35-45 from 2006-10 to 34-14 in the three seasons since Elway took over as executive vice president of football operations, with no general manger to support him over the past two seasons?

Here's how:

• Elway hasn't been afraid to make bold moves. Even after the Broncos won the AFC West with Tim Tebow at quarterback in 2011 and upset the Steelers in the playoffs, Elway led the franchise-changing push to bring in Manning — despite the quarterback's four neck operations, questionable shoulder strength and huge salary cap hit.

• He hasn't relied almost exclusively on the draft to freshen up the talent as the Steelers do. Instead, he supplemented draft picks by identifying and signing affordable free agents, such as receiver Wes Welker ($4.1 million cap hit in 2013), offensive lineman Manny Ramirez ($1.23 million) and defensive lineman Shaun Phillips ($1.4 million). He also traded for defensive lineman Terrance Knighton ($1.25 million). The four cost the Broncos barely as much in cap space as Ike Taylor does to the Steelers. Signing Welker to an affordable deal was a double whammy, as it took away Tom Brady's favored receiver.

• Elway and former general manager Brian Xanders drafted smartly. No Broncos-chosen linebacker was selected higher than the third round. Only one such defensive lineman went above the fifth round.

• Much like the New England Patriots, they prefer to turn over the roster rather than pay long-tenured players a lot of money as the Steelers do. Seven Steelers players counted $4 million or more against the cap this season, none less than $4.7 million. Only three Broncos players did.

• Elway stays largely in the shadows but isn't afraid to step into the locker room and deliver a pointed message. On Wednesday, Broncos players pointed to a paint-peeling speech he delivered following a blowout preseason loss in Seattle. Manning said, “He pretty much laid it on us.”

“We took notes about what he talked about … words like ‘soft' and ‘finishing,' ” Knighton said. “It shook up everybody: the coaching staff, the players.”

Elway explains that what it takes to win as a player is the same as what it takes to win as an executive.

“To me, the common denominator is competitiveness and wanting to win,” said Elway, who retired after leading the Broncos to Super Bowl wins in the 1997 and '98 seasons. “I think as a player I was very competitive, and I'm the same way as an executive.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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